Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wednesday Narrative Post - Disappointments of the Dark Tower

Spoiler Warning: If you haven't read the Dark Tower series and plan to, don't read any of this. A lot of discussion of plot points throughout the first five books below.

I returned my copy of “Song of Susannah” (the 6th book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series) to the library today without even opening it. I felt a little disappointed, both in myself because I don't like to leave books or series of books unfinished, and in Stephen King, because I've felt for 2 books now that the series has been descending in quality like a leaky hot air balloon. This is frustrating, because book 2 of the series (The Drawing of the 3), was so incredibly compelling,
with book 3 matching it and raising the stakes.

I was afraid of this slow decline in quality before I even started the series, though, because of King's stated reluctance to outline his books. It's not a new observation, but this aspect of King's narrative craft tends to lead to 2 things - great setups/plot developments, and terrible, terrible endings. I respect King's belief that the spontaneous nature of writing without the net of an outline leads a narrative down exciting, interesting, paths, but if those paths just dead-end then I think it can have a detrimental effect on the work as a whole. When this work is something like "IT", and the collapsing ending takes the form of the nameless terror appearing as a giant spider and then some sort of cosmic lightbulb (not really that scary), it's kind of a bummer but doesn't completely ruin the suspense and terror of the earlier parts of the book (the haunted house, the evil bird, etc.). What's left on balance is 800 great pages of setup and development, and 200 pages to get through the whole Evil Lightbulb in the Cosmos part.

But this lack of an outline really bites King in the ass over the course of a 7 volume fantasy series. The best long-form works of fantasy are works of nigh-obsessive attention to detail, from the totemic Lord of the Rings on down. And while I don't think it's necessary to create an entire freaking language to play in the long-form fantasy sandbox, I do think that when you're dealing in a multi-volume epic there has to be some sort of long term plan. Otherwise, instead of looking at 800 pages of setup and 200 fizzle, you're looking at 4-5 solid books followed by an epic 2 book long bellyflop into a pool of cement.

The problem is even more exacerbated by the epic length of the Dark Tower. The flaws start to pile up around the halfway point, in book 4, when King steers off of the main plot to give us an extended flashback Roland's youth.

After the high-suspense jolt of the lobstrosity threat that shapes Book 2's narrative drive and the hell-in-a-handbasket ride through the diseased city of Lud in Book 3 (which similarly serves as the suspenseful fulcrum of The Wastelands), King presents a long, unwinding tale of Roland's past that is too bloated by half. Alain and Cuthbert remain shapeless archetypes, even while Roland's character is deepened through his experiences with Susan. The villains are cardboard cutouts; mean and stupid men with tattoos of coffins, a far cry from the seductive and insane Blaine, the mad beating heart of the dystopian city of Lud. Against such colorless villains and allies, the slow pace and texture of the story brings the momentum of the overall series to a halt. It's one of King's patented left turns off the main road, and though as a standalone volume it has plenty to offer, it's location in the middle of the 7-volume epic is really the point at which King's tendency to build and build and build some more when he should start the process of wrapping up starts to rear its ugly head.

Book five doesn't recover the momentum, seeing as how its narrative arc is that of a hybrid Western/mystery and the solution is incredibly dull (the Wolves are mechanical, just like Shardik the bear! OMG!). This leaves the Western, which is servicable, but not particularly interesting, especially since the Calla is another outpost-style town that resembles nothing so much as the setting of the Wizard and Glass. After going to such efforts to flesh out his post-apocalyptic Mid-World, King pulls back drastically to portray 2 books worth of the small town blues. Meanwhile, the details of Mid-World itself, instead of beginning to resolve into a greater narrative, start to just pile up into an unwieldy mess. The structure of the Beams, the cosmos existing inside a rose in Midtown Manhattan, the suggestions of a Chief Malevolent Baddie by the name of the Crimson King: all of these details rob King's imagined universe of its internal consistency as a believable place that works according to its own rules and logic. It starts to come to resemble a cosmic stew of the supernatural.

By the time that a Stephen King book shows up at the end of Book 5, I knew I was done. Sure, sure the 4th wall and all of that, but fantasy breaks enough rules as it is that it paradoxically requires a greater internal consistency and logic in its imagined worlds. The metatextual touch of Father Callahan reading about himself in 'Salem's Lot didnt' give me chill bumps. It made me angry, as it seems the ultimate example of King writing himself into a corner.

As the internal logic of King's Mid-World breaks down, the flaws of his writing start to grate more. Eddie Dean, always speaking as the hepcat cool guy, delivering the wiseass SK lines. No major characters dead. No new major characters added. Sure, they're a traveling band, but the reduction of our cast of heroes to basically the same crew from book 2 onward flattens and constricts the imaginary universe. The narrative flaws begin to illuminate the flaws in charaterization, and the whole series goes south fast.

Compare this to the exquisitely plotted His Dark Materials, for example, where upon the conclusion every action, bit of dialogue, and description, seems to expand the universe and drive the overall plot forward, or to something like Gaiman's Sandman's, in which every digression is spun off of one of the central themes, and the Dark Tower shrinks as an achievement. The fight against the Wolves of the Calla is a b-grade mystery/western that doesn't speak to King's themes of a world moving on. The "Ramadan" chapter of the Sandman, in addition to being gorgeously written and illustrated, is a direct exploration of one of the central meaning's of the word "dream", namely the cost and pain that lies in the space between desire/aspiration and reality. The caliph would rather his kingdom endure in a dream than exist in reality only to be lost to memory, and thus sacrifices the prosperity of the now for the "Arabian Nights" romance of a dreamed Baghdad. This story slots neatly and naturally into the overall arc of the King of Dreams, almost as if Gaiman had (gasp!) outlined it be thus.

King, writing out on a limb, has no such option, and thus I find myself abandoning ship before it sinks even further. I have no faith that things are now on their way to resolving; instead, I fear the Deadlights ahead again.

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